6th Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds Warrantless Search of Prepaid Mobile Phone

In a recent decision, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals found that a suspected drug dealer had no expectation of privacy with regards to his prepaid mobile phone.  In the case at hand, agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) tracked the defendant’s location using the GPS service built into his phone. Despite the absence of a search warrant, police were able to compel the phone company to disclose real-time GPS information which was used to track the defendant.  The Court likened the data signals generated by a mobile phone’s GPS device, to the odor of drugs that can be smelt by trained drug-sniffing dogs.   While the ruling only specifically addressed prepaid cell phones, nothing about the Court’s logic could be construed to prevent police from using this tactic with all mobile phones and devices equipped with GPS.   It should be noted that the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has issued a ruling in direct contradiction to the 6th Circuit, meaning the United States Supreme Court will likely address this issue in the near future.   (This issue can be distinguished from the January opinion in which the United States Supreme Court held that police installation of a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car was unconstitutional, absent a warrant.)  In the meantime, be wary of the government tracking your location anytime you’re carrying a device equipped with active GPS tracking.

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